Tabot Ceremony, The Famoust Festival in Bengkulu

In a pluralistic society, the differences in point of view toward phenomena and events are something that cannot be avoided, especially when they are related to individual sentiment or group interests. It also happens regarding the Tabot ritual. Apart from the phenomenon that Tabot is a tourism icon of Bengkulu, some people describe it as a heresy that must be removed, while others say that it is a cultural heritage that should be preserved.

Heresy is embedded in this activity because of the element of deviation from the teachings of Islam during the ongoing process of Tabot procession. On the other hand, those who want to continue performing this ritual believe that Tabot implies goodness that must be submitted as cultural heritage that deserves to be maintained.

Tabot Ceremony, Bengkulu
Tabot Ceremony, Bengkulu (Source :

From those facts described above, questions arise: How is the Tabot ritual carried out so that it evokes different perceptions among the society of Bengkulu? What is the basic foundation and legal basis of the implementation of Tabot which is carried out every year and how to behave toward it?

This study is aimed to explore the history of the emergence of Tabot in Bengkulu and also to identify where this tradition was originated. The enthusiastic acceptance from Bengkulu people who are mostly Sunni toward Tabot tradition raises a big question. It seems that the sense of belonging of Bengkulu community toward Tabot make the cultural nuances in Tabot Festival thicker than the religious one.

The History of Tabot

The word Tabot is derived from Arabic word, which means: A chest to store the goods, or a box made of stone or wood which is used as a place to store the deceased.1 This meaning is in line with the meaning of Tabot found in the Qur’an, as Allah says: “Place him (Moses) in a chest, then throw it into the river (Nile), then surely it took him to the edge of the river”.

Tabot in the understanding of Bengkulu society is a religious ceremony performed by some Muslims in Bengkulu as an effort to remember and commemorate the death or the martyrdom of Sayyidina Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib in the battle of Karbala, Iraq at the beginning of Muharram month in 61 Hijriyah (681 AD). This ceremony encompasses a series of events held for ten days, started from 1st Muharram and ended on the 10th of the same month.

The entire series of events in Tabot are believed as a form of love for the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib, who was killed in the battle of Karbala. It is also believed as a symbol of hostility against the Umayyads in general and Yazid bin Muawiyah in particular as well as the Governor Ubeidillah bin Ziyad who ordered the attack on Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib and his family.

Tabot ceremony of Bengkulu
Tabot ceremony of Bengkulu (Source :

There is no certain evidence that indicates the beginning of Tabot ceremony held by Bengkulu citizens, but many believe the ceremony has become popular in Bengkulu during the construction of the fort Malborough, in which the workers from Madras and Bengali, South India were imported by the British to build the fort approximately in 1714 to 1719. Although in the end the workers mostly returned to their homes after the construction of fort Malborough, most of them had settled in Bengkulu and married with the locals.

This opinion is contrary to the successor family’s opinions who insist that the celebration of Tabot had been implemented long before the construction of the fort Malborough. They believe that Tabot was brought directly by the Indian Punjab in the year 1336 AD. They oppose the idea that it was brought by the British workers when they built Fort Malborough. Their opinion is based on the belief that Bengkulu is a region that is very similar to the condition of Persia. Bengkulu has many hills that are regarded as a representation of Karbala territory in Iraq.

The majority opinions also believe that Tabot celebration in Bengkulu was first held by Sheikh Burhanuddin known as Imam Senggolo in 1685. Sheikh Burhanuddin (Imam Senggolo) came from Bengal India. Then, he settled in Bengkulu and married a local woman who later got offspring. His tomb is still preserved so that it is considered sacred by someresidents nowadays.

Tabot Festival, Bengkulu
Tabot Festival, Bengkulu (Source :

From the facts explained above that show contrary, it can be concluded that the early commencement of Tabot ceremony held in Bengkulu was started in 1336 AD, brought by the Punjab India. As time goes by, this ceremony was not performed anymore by the next generation. Later, around 1685 AD, Sheikh Burhanuddin known as Imam Senggolo revived that long-abandoned ceremony. In the construction of Fort Malborough, the Indian workers brought by the British actively participated in the process of Tabot ceremony to release their longing to the customs in their village that was also held each year and similar to Tabot.

Time and Procedures of Tabot

The Tabot ceremony is a long series of events conducted from the 1st to the 10th of Muharram. Every day, there are interrelated special events. It begins by taking soil on the 1st of Muharram in a place considered sacred and ends with Tabot disposal on the 10th of Muharram. The details are as follows:

1. Soil Taking

Soil taking is held on the evening of the 29th Dzulhijjah, exactly at 22.00 until 00.00 or night in the 1st Muharram every year. Because the Tabot ceremony has sacred values, then the soil must be taken from a sacred place too. There are some lands in Bengkulu that are considered having a high degree of sanctity. However, the Tabot families choose the lands with the highest levels of sanctity according to them. The lands that are considered to have the highest levels of sanctity are:

a. Tanah Paderi. A location near Pantai Panjang which has a steep slope. The location is adjacent to Fort Malborough in Bengkulu.
b. Tebek. It is located close to public cemeteries Tebek Market which is located in Nala Beach.

The soil taking is aimed to remind humans that they come from the soil and they will return there, so that people are aware of the meaning of life and do not be arrogant or conduct despicable acts in life. The soil is taken two handfuls, then it is shaped like a puppet assumed as Hussein’s body, wrapped in a white cloth which is then placed in Gerga. The soiltaking is carried out by the chairman of Tabot, shaman, and Tabot figures, followed by Tabot family members and the people who participate to see the event.

2. Duduk Penja

Penja is an object made in pairs which is shaped like human hands complete with the fingers. Each Tabot group at least has a pair of penja. The size of penja varies from the size of adult’s palm to children’s palm. Penja is usually made of copper, silver or brass. Although the original penja was made of gold, but because of the cost of manufacture, the penja made of these materials is adequate enough. These objects are stored above the ceiling of the house for one year. When Muharram comes, those things are brought down on the 4th and 5th of Muharram at 15:30 to be washed with lime water and rinsed with milk and sandalwood that are equipped with the offering. After being washed, the penja is seated and wrapped in cloth and stored in gerga. This series of events is called Duduk Penja. Penja that is shaped like a human hand is associated with the pair of hands of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib and his followers that were found to be scattered and needed to be paired again.

3. Menjara

It means attack. In Tabot ceremony, menjara is expressed by traveling at night to stay in touch with other fellow Tabot; younger Tabot visits the older and the next day older Tabot visits the younger. Menjara is performed on the 6th and 7th of Muharram after evening prayers until 22:00. This event was accompanied with musical accompaniment of dol, thus it attracts people to come see it. Beating dol repeatedly is associated with what happened when there was fighting between the troops of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib with Mu’awiya bin Yazid’s army.

4. Meradai

It is a fund raising event done by the chairman of the Tabot to community voluntarily. The Tabot chief delegates several young teenagers for citation. The teens on duty are called jola. In performing their duty, the jola walk into houses, accompanied by the sounds of tassa. Meradai is held on 6th and 7th Muharram.

5. Arak Penja

It means the parade of penja or fingers that is carried on the 7th Muharram after Maghrib prayer until 21.00. The event starts from gerga in which the penja (fingers) are stored respectively. After being opened with a series of rituals, The penja are strung on double-edged spear and paraded to Merdeka hall which route has been determined by the respective chairman of Tabot. Arriving at Merdeka hall, all Tabot groups form a line of rows in which all banners and penja are juxtaposed until 21.00 or 22.00. After the event, the penja and banners are taken home and stored in gerga respectively. This event is associated with the efforts of a notice to the public that the fingers of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib have been found, so that people are no longer confused and try to look for it.

6. Arak Seroban

It is quite similar to Arak Penja, but in seroban the procession will be followed by tabot coki, the penja which has been shrouded in a white cloth and placed in tabot coki. The top of the penja is covered with seroban (turban) and then paraded in accordance with the prescribed route. Arak Seroban is held on the 8th of Muharram after Maghrib prayer until 21.00 or 22.00. This event is followed by a variety of folk art with many attractions and offering dances. Arak Seroban is intended for notification to the public that the turban worn by Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib when fighting in Karbala has been found.

7. Gam

It means a day of mourning. The event was held on the 9th of Muharram from 06.00 am until 14.00 o’clock. On this day, all the Tabot activities are stopped, there is no sound of dol and tassa. On this day, all the Tabot family wail and cry to show deep sorrow over the killing of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib in the battle of Karbala.

8. Arak Gedang

It means parading all the Tabot toward a predetermined place, namely Merdeka hall. Arak Gedang is held on the 9th of Muharram. Before the Tabot is paraded, around 14:00 in the afternoon, it is held an event in which the piece of top the the Tabot and the bottom (gedang) Tabot are spliced into one piece. This session is called Tabot naik pangkeh. During the execution of the event, the entire dol and tassa are rung back as a sign that the manufacturing of Tabot has been completed entirely. After Asr prayer, Tabot is taken to the gerga place for soja.10 At night, around 19:00 to 22:00, Tabot is paraded around the city of Bengkulu. The Tabots are decorated with beautiful colorful flowers and decorative lights. Arriving at the Merdeka hall, those Tabots are juxtaposed and given ratings to determine the best Tabot.

9. Tabot Terbuang

It is the culmination of the long series of Tabot ceremony as a commemoration of the death of Hussein in the battle of Karbala, so this event is conducted in Karabela, a public cemetery in Bengkulu city. It is done by disposing Tabot to the burial site. This event takes place on the 10th of Muharram at 12.00 at noon. Before the Tabot is discarded, the whole Tabot is paraded around the city to the Merdeka hall. Each Tabot must pay homage to Imam Tabot and Ward. On the way to the Karabela public cemetery, the parade is accompanied by the sound of dol dan tassa as well as the oceans of masses who follow the Tabot event. The ceremony is associated as the last delivery ceremony to Husein’s body which was buried in Karbala and as a reminder for mankind that the fighting between Hussein and Yazid bin Mu’awiya resulted not only a small number of casualties, with the hope that those such things can be
avoided and not repeated again.

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